Belladonna of Sadness is a film that would not be made today.
Partly this is due to its unique artistic genesis. Though Osamu Tezuka certainly wasn’t the first to create anime, it was his low-image-count innovations and ridiculously cutthroat episodic pricing that allowed it to become a commercial TV medium. You can thus almost blame Tezuka for some of the massive limitations the medium still suffers under, from its criminally depressed animator wages to its emphasis on cost-cutting at the expense of the final product. Tezuka’s innovations were often mercenary ones: “how few frames will it require for this to present the illusion of movement? How much of this episode’s animation can be stored in the bank for later episodes?” Much of what would become anime’s recognized “visual vocabulary” was built out of necessity, choices made to mitigate the artistic limitations of these harsh restrictions.
And yet, if anime’s commercial birth was bound by Tezuka’s restrictions, it was also bolstered by his artistic ambition. The more I read about Tezuka, the more it seems he appreciated a challenge more than anything else. His most impressive feature is his prolificity, and his strides into animation seemed driven almost by a simple desire to prove he could. Having created his own damn studio, Tezuka’s film output was not bound by the restrictions of his television productions. Tezuka was incredibly competitive when it came to his mangaka peers, but when it came to film animation, it seems like his rivalries extended to media culture at large. Thus while his television output was restricted to low-budget adaptations of his popular manga, his film output stretched out into the vastly experimental, from short film suites like Pictures at an Exhibition to Belladonna of Sadness’s Animerama trilogy, a series of erotic films seemingly aimed at both the increasingly nudity-friendly Japanese public and the global arthouse cinema world.
Of course, Tezuka had actually left Mushi Pro by the time Belladonna of Sadness was in active production, and thus while it was only his position and hubris that got the film created, the resulting work isn’t really a “Tezuka film” at all. Belladonna’s actual director, Eiichi Yamamoto, has an output limited to mostly Mushi Pro films, along with the landmark Space Battleship Yamato. But while I’m not familiar enough with Yamamoto’s works to see his fingers on this production, there’s plenty else about this film’s identity that would make it impossible to recreate. In short: this film is ’70s as hell.
Inspired by French historian Jules Michelet’s Satanism and Witchcraft, the film tells the story of Jean and Jeanne, two lovers in medieval Europe. After embracing in holy matrimony, their happiness is shattered when their local lord demands Jeanne’s virtue as a wedding gift. After being raped by the lord and his men, Jeanne is confronted by a tiny devil who takes the shape of a penis, and urges Jeanne to embrace him in order to find power. Jeanne spurns this devil, but as her vicious society continues to beat her down, she is eventually driven out as a witch anyway. Ultimately Jeanne embraces her “devilish” nature, and bewitches the townsfolk who once scorned her before eventually being burned at the stake.
Belladonna’s story is conveyed through a mixture of narration, brief conversations, and lengthy musical interludes. The story is simplified into iconicism, presented more as a fairy tale or moral lesson than an actual dramatic narrative. The wanderings of the story present ample opportunity for wild visual digressions, the film’s divergent styles and musical focus echoing works like Fantasia while building on Tezuka’s established experiments. And beyond Tezuka, Belladonna most often feels like an indulgent ‘70s arthouse film, a reflection not just of anime storytelling, but of the global art community.
Belladonna’s various aesthetic choices heavily contribute to this effect. Jeanne herself is presented in an emphatically “un-anime” style – from her angled features and realistic proportions to her long lashes and permanently sleepy eyes, she looks very much like a western ‘70s pinup model. Jeanne’s fellow characters are presented in a vastly different style, with exaggerated and simplified features seemingly designed to resemble an actual medieval tapestry, and Christian iconography overhanging every third frame. This clash of ‘70s modernity and medieval affectation continues to the rest of the film’s aesthetic choices; this is likely the only anime you’ll find that marries a scrolling illuminated manuscript to twanging sitar and wailing psychedelic rock. It seems impossible to think this film wasn’t at least partially intended for an audience of American hippies dosed out of their minds.
Belladonna’s aesthetics are defined by limitations in their own way, but the film works hard to turn its choices into a genuine dramatic vocabulary. There is extremely little active animation in Belladonna; though the film contains a handful of beautifully animated musical segments, the story is mostly told through pans over still images, with perhaps one sliding tear or chuckling devil to provide the illusion of movement. Instead, the film finds beauty in stillness; not only is it full of gorgeously realized panning shots, but its diversity of art style ranges from beautifully understated watercolors to paints so thick their texture actually becomes a part of the composition. Like Masaaki Yuasa’s Mind Game or Kenji Nakamura’s Kuuchuu Buranko, Belladonna doesn’t really strive for holism of aesthetic, instead letting its ambitions decide what media it might employ next.
While Belladonna’s provocative images are beautiful for their own sake, the film is also noteworthy for the bold ways it finds motion in stillness. “If the frame can’t change, we’ll move the frame” seems to be one of the film’s guiding philosophies. Early on, this movement is constrained to regular pans, with lengthy slides over sprawling, shifting frames telling full stories by themselves. These extended panels directly echo old-fashioned narrative tapestries, and greatly contribute to the film’s illusion of presenting a medieval fantasy. That point is so noteworthy that it feels worth underlining: Belladonna’s panning demonstrates how not just underlying art design, but even the method of “shooting” those designs can echo other media in a way that dramatically enhances some intended tonal effect.
Later on, Belladonna explores the kinetic potential of moving the frame in a variety of other ways. When Jeanne is seized by the lord, her journey into the dungeon is presented as a furious pan back and forth over static steps, strongly conveying the sense of being carried so fast you can barely register your surroundings. Meanwhile, Jean being tossed out of the castle is conveyed through a gentler spin of the frame, as if the castle is being lifted sideways to shake him out of the building. In the film’s third act, a sense of movement into and out of depth is conveyed by reducing the size of the frame itself, the image surrounded by black bars creating the sense of the narrative just walking away. These choices are too jarring and ostentatious for workability in shows more dedicated to presenting a convincing illusion of a steady animated world, but I see echoes of these tricks in modern children’s shows, where budgetary limitations often trump concerns of aesthetics, and the audience is less likely to revolt when a frame demonstrates that it is only a frame.
All this rambling and I haven’t even really touched what Belladonna is actually about. As I said before, Belladonna feels more like an archetypal fairy tale than a truly personal story, and thus it’s difficult to invest in the film’s simplified characters and broad, iconic narrative strokes. The story’s frequent digressions into lengthy song sequences only enhance the sense that this is more a visceral experience than a narrative one, even if segments like its wild evocation of the black death create their own effective drama. But even if its dialogue and characters are broad, Belladonna still feels like a thematic knife edge. This film is furious: furious at the world that scarred Jeanne, furious at its sniveling inhabitants, and furious at the vast hypocrisies that define their lives.
Belladonna of Sadness is a story about the ways women will always be witches, as long as society wants them to be. Jeanne does absolutely nothing wrong, and yet her simple desire to live happily with her husband is thwarted again and again by her lord, by her neighbors, and even by her husband himself. Her initial rape is presented through visual metaphor so violent it actually feels as graphic as seeing the act itself, her body torn in two, screams accompanying the striking red fill that Kunihiko Ikuhara would later turn into his own icon of violence. And from there, her story only becomes more and more tragic, as even her husband seems incapable of treating her kindly. In one of the film’s best-chosen animation highlights, Jean’s hands shift from gently caressing her hair to closing around her throat, echoing this film’s overall understanding that appreciating a woman is always a conditional act, a prayer that contains a curse.
Jeanne herself bears the psychological burden of a society that cannot value female autonomy. The “devil” who visits her seems to embody that autonomy, seducing her with such sinful wishes as “you should be able to make your own choices” and “sex doesn’t have to be a violent theft, it is okay to enjoy your own body.” The fact that the devil appears as a penis underlines the fact that power is a man’s tool in this world, and only by aligning yourself with male power can you hope to succeed. And later sequences dance on the line between pain and pleasure, Jeanne’s alternately sensual and painful moans emphasizing how in a world where our bodies are seen as sins, finding joy in intercourse means combating a lifetime of repression, or accepting you are a fallen soul. Later on that point is made explicit: when the witch Jeanne counsels a couple on having sex without becoming pregnant, the lord’s cries of heresy make it clear that sexual autonomy is itself a sin. Even the film’s active frame manipulation echoes this point, through a frame of ostensible sexual contentment pulling back to reveal the ugly truth.
Throughout the story, Jeanne struggles to be accepted by a world that condemns her for things beyond her control. After being spurned by her husband for the crime of being raped, she works hard at spinning fabrics, and eventually becomes a successful merchant. When her hard work prompts economic success, she is swiftly assailed with rumors of being possessed by the devil – because of course, women’s labor can never be relied upon, and their successes can never be trusted. Jeanne’s body is presented as a strange canvas that hostile forces continuously act upon, leading her to eventually tell the devil that “this flesh, this rotting flesh, I will give it to you if it will save Jean.” In a world like this, how could she possibly come to value her own body? Even the fact that Jeanne and Jean share a name seems designed to highlight the disparities of their society: two people alike in all but gender, one continuously coddled by his society, one forever spurned as a witch.
This discrepancy only broadens as the story moves to war. When Jeanne seduces a local moneylender, he accepts her bargain, but then rails at her and calls her a devil for it. While Jean wastes his days drinking, Jeanne becomes a moneylender herself, and ultimately takes over the town. Jealous of Jeanne’s success, the lord’s wife conspires with the local priest, and successfully has Jeanne driven out while her husband simply stares. Eventually Jeanne meets her old friend in the wastes, and accepts the only role she has left: “I want to become a horrifying woman.” It seems that at least one of Belladonna’s moral points is “yeah, I made a deal with the devil, but that’s only because all you shitheads were a million times worse.” When society is determined to cast you as a monster, you often have no choice but to play the part.
Jeanne’s tragedy continues through union with the devil and the black death and a frankly overlong orgy sequence, tossing haymakers at the inherent violence of patriarchal society and the vast hypocrisies of the church all the while. While its shots are broad, in today’s world, it almost feels like the narrative’s lack of complexity is actually a dramatic virtue. We really do live in a world where those in power are trying to kill us, and drive us through contradictory moral traps to kill each other. We really do live in a culture that hates women, and sees female power as an inherent threat. We really can be this hypocritical, this nearsighted, this hateful, this small.
Seen in that light, Belladonna of Sadness is just as relevant today as it was in its strange original context. I can’t say Belladonna is really an “enjoyable film” – not because its subject matter is so heavy, but because it’s so creaky and winding as a narrative, so indulgent, so ungrounded. But Belladonna’s furious anger carries through, along with a myriad spectacle of strange aesthetic wonders. A medieval tapestry set to ‘70s psych-rock, imbued with an anger fit to combat our fallen world. There will never be another like it.